Training the Afghan Military

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Army photo / Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith

Want a drink? Pallets of bottled water are parachuted to a remote U.S. outpost in Afghanistan.

Army Major Christopher Miller was in Afghanistan in 2006-2007 helping to train up its security forces. An infantryman, he was there as part of a four-man embedded tactical trainer – ETT – with the 41st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group.

While his deployment was awhile ago, the issues he grappled with sound a lot like what current U.S. trainers are facing. Their job is vital: the Afghan security forces they’re grooming will be the ones in charge of the nation’s security once U.S. combat units leave in 2014. Miller talked about his tour in this recently-posted April interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Excerpts:

I lived, essentially, for…10 months in the field, moving from forward operating base (FOB) to FOB…

It was a struggle. They’re not wired the same way we are. They don’t really get in a hurry for anything.

To them, being technically and tactically proficient at something is completely different from how we interpret that. If they can get up in the morning, get in their trucks and drive off then they can shoot, move and communicate. That’s just not how it works; there is more to it than that. They are infantile from that standpoint…

The way our FOBs were configured was that all of the Americans lived inside the walls of the FOBs. We would set up either tents or hardened buildings for the Afghans on the outside of the wall. They were still within our security footprint because we would run wire around their facilities and connect it to our wire but they were not allowed inside our wire proper, which was kind of unusual to me. We told them what to do, where to go and when to go.

We didn’t tell them why but we also didn’t have that 100 percent touchy-feely relationship with them so it made it difficult at times…

There were more than one occasion where I would give the Afghan leadership 24-hours’ notice of where we were going and during the movement we would get ambushed. We would get ambushed in a place where we had never been ambushed before, that was completely friendly and it was just out of the realm of the rational thinking of, “Why would they hit us here?” At that point, I quit sharing information and the ambushes stopped at particular locations..

Sustaining yourself in very austere environments, particularly up in Contingency Operating Site (COS) Uruzgan and FOB Anaconda. Everything had to be helicoptered in, absolutely everything, I mean, it was a three-day drive from COS Uruzgan to Kandahar. That was a hard three days. It was torturous.

We relied heavily on air supply. We did have a landing zone inside our walls that we could land a couple of Chinooks simultaneously and we also had the ability to receive airdrops if we had to have an airdrop. The drop zone was probably a good 10 miles down the road, down in the middle of the desert away from any kind of terrain features. There were no houses in the area, no wadis, no riverbeds, nothing but just flat desert because we didn’t give anybody the opportunity to shoot down an aircraft.

I think being forced to operate in austere conditions was probably the most challenging aspect on my tour. There were a couple of times where we were completely out of fuel; we were almost out of water. The fuel is not such a bad thing but that we were just relegated to staying on the FOB and not being able to go out mix and mingle with the locals.

When you get to a point when you know you are counting water bottles instead of pallets of water then it becomes a little nerve-racking and same thing with ammunition because it was a very busy year. Every time they would bring in food or water, they would always sling in ammunition as well whether we needed it or not, mortar rounds, machine gun ammunition or small arms ammunition…

Being in that part of Afghanistan at night was the darkest environment that I had ever seen. When the sun went down, you could not see your hand in front of your face. It was that dark. I’ve never seen dark like that except in a cave. It was like that every night.

You could tell who the power brokers were in town because some of these compounds did have electricity. It was only on for maybe four or five hours at a time but you could look out and see who had lights; you could pick out those houses…

My experience in Afghanistan was a life changing even for me for a lot of different reasons. We had one guy on our team that was killed and that was pretty difficult to handle. There were a lot of dead Afghan soldiers that paid the ultimate price. That was difficult.

They are very proud people but unfortunately, there is always going to be the few in the populace that don’t believe and don’t want to seek out change. For the most part, they are very proud people.

I think they are just tired. They go from one war to the next to the next and then to the next. Afghanistan is one of the most conquered lands in the world — you name it –everybody has tried to impose their world there. It just doesn’t work out very well.